SAS research design audio guides to improve multisensory memories at Tate Britain

Friday 23 June 2017

Do audio guides help or distract the visitor from enjoying the artefacts in an exhibition? New research from the School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London, suggests that the debate misses a crucial component: how well do individual audio-tracks match the paintings.

The study, Voice over: Audio-visual congruency and content recall in the gallery setting, was conducted over three consecutive days at Tate Britain in London, and involved 112 visitors (67 females and 45 males aged between 18 and 40) viewing real artworks while listening to a bespoke audio guide. As visitors stopped in front of a painted portrait, they heard one of four different versions of the audio-tracks, assigned randomly by a program. These tracks were either read by a male or a female actor, and were written either in the first or third person narrative.

Researchers found that depending on the track, participants remembered more, or less, of what they heard and, also of what they saw. For instance, they had a better memory for portraits of women that were described by a female voice. The same goes for paintings involving men being described by a male voice.

The experiment was a collaboration between philosopher, Dr Ophelia Deroy and cognitive psychologist Dr Merle Fairhurst, from the School’s Centre for the Study of Senses and Germany’s Ludwig Maximilian University, and Tate curator, Minnie Scott. It is the first time such a controlled experiment involving real visitors has taken place in the gallery. 

’At the moment audio-guides are like voices that come out of nowhere,’ explains Dr Deroy. ‘This is an added challenge for your brain, which already has to negotiate two other spaces – the real space of the gallery and the space opened by the painting. By building audio-tracks that are better matched to each painting, using a ‘sensory glue’ like voices paired with portraits, or language in the first-person pronouns, we make it easier for the brain to put information together.’

‘Researchers know that the more senses are involved in an experience, the better you remember it. This multisensory benefit just needs to be better tested and harnessed to practical situations, like we did for audio-guides’, said Dr Fairhurst.

Those who produce these voice-overs will find the detail and variations within ‘Voice over: Audio-visual congruency and content recall in the gallery setting’, which has been published in  the scientific journal PLOS ONE, helpful in creating their own resources.

Minnie Scott, curator from Tate’s learning department, says this research has changed the way ‘we think about our audio guide scripts at Tate. We are much more conscious of identifying commentators and warier of giving information via unnamed narrators. We have trialled delivering descriptions of portraits as first person speech as part of a live audio description tour for visitors with visual impairments. Their feedback was very positive.’


Notes for Editors: 

  1. For further information, please contact: Maureen McTaggart, Media and Public Relations Officer, School of Advanced Study, University of London +44 (0)20 7862 8653 /
  2. The School of Advanced Study (SAS), University of London is the UK’s national centre for the promotion and support of research in the humanities. SAS and its member institutes offer unparalleled academic opportunities, facilities and stimulation across a wide range of subject areas for the benefit of the national and international scholarly community. In 2015-16, SAS: welcomed 786 research fellows and associates; held 2,007 research dissemination events; received 24.4 million visits to its digital research resources and platforms; and received 194,145 visits to its specialist libraries and collections. The School also leads the UK’s only nationwide festival of the humanities: Being Human. Find out more at follow SAS on Twitter at @SASNews.
  3. The University of London is a federal university and is one of the oldest, largest and most diverse universities in the UK. Established by Royal Charter in 1836, the university is recognised globally as a world leader in higher education. Its members are 18 self-governing institutions of outstanding reputation, and nine research institutes. Learn more about the University of London at